It seems fairly amazing that as we close out 2012 it has become necessary to defend, of all things, plates. Yet here we are. The Prick is sure he is not the only one to have noticed, but dishes – you know, proper plates and bowls – are becoming increasingly rare things in restaurants these days as chefs swap their ceramics for everything from slate to salt bricks to (the topic of today’s rant) wooden planks.
This weekend, seeking a bit of a respite as we tidied up from our annual Thanksgiving Turkey-Fry (more about which later), Mrs Prick and I wandered over to the nearby Booth Street Bistro in Annandale for a bit of lunch and a cleansing ale. It was lovely (though whether by omission or design there were no croutons in Mrs Prick’s Caesar Salad – #firstworldproblems and all that, but it could’ve used the crunch), we got away for around $50, and it is on the short-list for a weeknight dinner and a proper review sometime soon.
But this is how the steak came to the table:
Did they miss a step or get frantic at the pass? Forget putting it on a plate, just bring ‘em out the whole damn board!
Yes, I know, chefs call it “innovation”. But is it really innovation, or just a bourgeois flirtation with Mao’s doctrine of constant revolution and rustication? Smash the revisionist plates of capitalism! Celebrate the humble wooden dishware of the peasantry! Criticise Lin Biao and Confucius!
Alright, maybe not that last one.
Yet boards and planks are becoming the new normal. A chicken burger at the discreet Atrio on the 7th floor of the Westfield comes on a narrow paddle that jars with its high-modern surrounds and makes things difficult when the meal loses its structural integrity.
Such a neo-primitive presentation felt at odds with Atrio’s soaring space, which calls to mind New York’s Lever House, or perhaps an Ayn Rand novel.
The Pontius Pilate Award for Worst Use of Boards, though, would have to go to the Well & Co Café in Norton Street: It doesn’t take a genius to imagine happens to pancakes and syrup when they’re on something flat, without a rim.
The boards-versus-plates debate goes deeper than presentation. The question is really a proxy for the difference between mere culture (what you get when a few dozen homo sapiens live together for a time) and proper civilisation (which is what happens when they go on to build the Sistine Chapel and invent the 747). Boards are to plates what lighting a fire is to turning on the air conditioner: One is simple, primitive, comforting in a sort of Saurian base-of-the-brainstem kind of a way. The other is only possible because we stand on the shoulders of giants.
And just as it is a lot trickier to make hot air cold, it is also a lot more complicated to make a plate than it is to hew off a piece of tree. Thus civilisation and ceramics go hand in hand: a capital-r Romantic like Rousseau would have loved eating off a board, the better to get in touch with his noble savage. John Stuart Mill, it can pretty safely be assumed, would have been a plate man all the way.
(Note that there are exceptions to this rule. Sailing is far preferable to stink-boating, even if the latter involves internal combustion, one of the high-water marks of Western Civilisation. Anyone can steer a motorboat but sailing a yacht takes skill, which trumps all.)
I can see why chefs like boards. Rustic and simple is appealing when everyone feels they’re supposed to be austere, even if they are paying $35 a main for the privilege. Boards are fine for cheese or charcuterie, but when it comes to the main meal, the Prick agrees with the billboard. Insist upon plates. They really do make every meal a special meal.